Sweet Fern on the Barrens

Sweet Fern, one of my favorite plants on the Barrens. 

I first noticed it when I went out to the Barrens on several trips to find out more about this place the locals called “The Barrens”. 

As I walked around, I frequently noticed a lovely fragrance and discovered it was coming from the Sweet Fern plant. 

Now I grew up in the south-central Arizona Sonoran Desert and they had a plant called the Creosote bush that also had a prominent fragrance especially after a rain.  So nice to be walking about in nature and using all your senses.  The sounds of animals, the visuals of colors and then the smells of plants are such an added bonus!  Now the Sonoran Desert has some not so nice ‘tactile’ attractions called Thorns!  Oh, the beautiful ‘teddy bear cholla’ with its fuzzy sharp / hooked thorns surrounding 6–10-inch pieces of the plant that fall off the bush and roll around the ground to reseed the soil and make a new plant.  So, you need to watch where you stepped lest it puncture your tennis shoes!  Ouch!  Ahhh, the Barrens does not have any of those sharp pointy plants!  So, it is much safer taking a walk out on the Barrens than my old desert walks!

Well, getting back to that lovely plant called the Sweet Fern, which is not a fern but a perennial bush with many interesting features and a very old history for humans.  This is a plant that is quite unique!  It loves the sand because most other plants cannot grow in the sand.  The Barrens is part of the Northwest Sands that stretches 160 miles and covers nearly 2000 sq miles with a sand depth of 100-600 ft. 

This sandy acidic soil is not favorable to most plants because of that acidic sand.  However the Sweet Fern has adapted perfectly for this soil, because it has developed little root nodules that specialize in extracting Nitrogen from the air and into the plant.  Most plants need nitrogen in the soil chemistry to obtain nitrogen and can’t thrive on the Barrens sandy habitats.

Sweet fern has female green fuzzy flowers that bloom April and May and also grow small nutlets that also can be used.  Also has male catkins on the branch tips. 

Early settlers used the sweet fern as insect repellant by scattering the leaves on the house floors.  Even sweet fern insect repellant recipes have been developed in old times.

Very useful for itchy skin and against poison ivy rashes.

Mix the fresh leaves with water and can be stored up to a year.  Apply this solution to itchy skin and also to poison ivy exposed skin several times a day helps prevent the ‘big rash’ from appearing.

Traditionally, the burned , dried leaves were used in religious ceremonies, an infusion of leaves was used for fever, and a decoction or infusion of leaves was used to cure stomach cramps. 

Also check out a Wild Blueberry Sauce with Sweetfern recipe in https://foragerchef.com/wild-blueberry-sauce-with-sweetfern/

Also forgot to mention the ‘Song of the Sweet Fern’ sung by Carter family.

Song of the Sweet Fern


Springtime is coming, sweet lonesome bird
Your echo in the woodland I hear
Down in the meadow so lonesome you’re singing
While the moonlight is shining so clear
But I know he’s away in a far distant land
A land that is over the sea
Go fly to him singing your sweet little song
And tell him to come back to me

Sweet Fern (Sweet Fern) Sweet Fern (Sweet Fern)
Oh, tell me, is my darling still true
Sweet Fern (Sweet Fern) Sweet Fern (Sweet Fern)
I’ll be just as happy as you
Well, a-lee-oh-lay-ee

You can google the many uses of the sweet fern for medicinal purposes.

For sweet fern teas check out this you tube video:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KJH7Dp6Stoo

Separate male and female flowers are borne in catkins or dense, cylindrical clusters that develop in April and May. Male catkins are elongated and female shortened ovals. Olive brown, burr-like fruits develop from pollinated female catkins by early summer (edible nutlets are inside the burr).

Sweet Fern Plant and leaves

                      Male catkins

Female Flowers                                            

Edible nutlets

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